I’d been following Scott Adams’ insufferable fawning of Donald Trump for some time with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement.
Mind you that I think Trump’s support is built on very real political foundations, of the very significant segment of population who are genuinely discontented with the conventional politics. I also believe that Adams is on to something potentially big, but I don’t see Trump’s rhetorical strategy as something particularly masterful or ingenious. What it does illustrate, though, is how weak his enemies really are and how their weakness can only be obscured by a carefully staged masquerade where everyone agrees to pretend to not notice the obvious elephants in the room.
What makes Trump’s strategy work? It works because, even if his statements are distorted and twisted, there is a fundamental kernel of truth. If you try to explain why the statement is untrue, you will have to expose equally damaging truth along the way. Ted Cruz WAS born in Canada. Bill Clinton did have sex with “that woman,” and Hillary Clinton did her part to prop up her husband’s political reputation. The list can go on. Legally, Cruz’s Canadian birth does not (as far as I know) disqualify him from becoming president any more than John McCain’s Panamian birth (on US military base in the Canal Zone, where his father was stationed). The answer, however, is a legalistic one that will not be so easily explainable. In case of the Clintons, even the best explanations are probably a bit dodgy and are unlikely to leave them looking like anything other than power-hungry hypocrits.
This is not new in American politics: Bob Shrum (I think) allegedly said, “if you explain, you lose.” Explanations are only slightly worse than the accusations in terms of content, and coming from your own mouth while looking defensive, they will look worse. But not defending is not necessarily helpful either: the accusations do draw attention to the very real problems, even if in distorted, misleading, and exaggerated fashion. Throwing damning half truth, daring the other side to defend themselves and in so doing slide deeper, is the gold standard of mudslinging in American politics, with history going back to the second presidential election, bitterly contested between Adams and Jefferson. There is, naturally, a nifty web comic that addresses this, playing off of the emperor’s new clothes story.
The best solution to this, if the accused has thick enough skin, is to turn accusation on its head. There is an interesting variant of this dating from ancient China, reproduced in the historical novel The Romance of Three Kingdoms. When warlord Liu Bei was being attacked by the vastly more powerful army of his rival Cao Cao, he sent his top advisor, the strategic genius Zhuge Liang, to enlist aid from the so-far neutral state of Wu. Much Cao propaganda rested on his “invincible million man army,” which was not quite one million in number but “only” 800,000. The slogan operated in much the same fashion as Trump’s exaggerated stories: those who knew knew that it is an embelishment, but by exposing the lie, they have to bring up the fact that Cao does indeed have a vast and highly experienced army that conquered several powerful warlords already. So what does Zhuge Liang do when he meets Sun Quan, the lord of the Wu state? He offers an even more exaggerated account of how Cao Cao squashed flat other rivals and that how his army is probably even larger and more fearsome than his own propaganda. His point was simple: Cao Cao’s army might be vast and powerful, but that is not relevant to the strategic needs of the Wu state and its defensive advantages. The strategic needs are served by allying with Liu Bei and the defensive advantages are sufficient to wipe out the advantage of numbers and experience that Cao Cao’s army was bringing whatever their numbers might be. In context of American politics, Grover Cleveland pulled off something along this vein when accused by his opponents of immorality due to fathering a son out of wedlock and marrying a much younger woman who was his mistress: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
If Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton had such obvious positive qualities that can generate actual support from the electorate, the trivial and annoying accusations by Trump would be irrelevant. Cruz should show up at an NHL game and sing “O Canada,” say. But therein lies the problem: Cruz and Clinton (and all the other candidates) are such lightweights that they can only count on banal and meaningless platitudes for cheap appeal to the voters, which, in turn, are quickly and mercilessly exposed by Trump’s equally cheap shots. Whatever positive qualities these characters have are worth no more than mere wisecracks by Trump. This is reminiscent of how Jon Stewart skewered all the stuffy panelists on Crossfire by merciless ridicule which put that miserable excuse of a political chat show out of its misery. Trump, like Stewart, is a product of the media world and is highly skilled in the fine art of acerbic dark comedy.
I would not suggest that the Democrats (or the Republicans) should try to counter Trump by bringing in another comedian–a good comedian does not make for a good president. They can, however, start by thinking who, with what qualities, would for make an acceptable president in the eyes of a majority of Americans even if he or she is a Canadian who did have sex with that woman.